A current ad for Bass – Britain’s best-selling premium cask ale since 1777 – would, I suspect, have attracted some criticism just a few years ago.
It shows two triangles, one above the other. The first is the road sign “men at work”, which shows in silhouette a male figure who is either shovelling a pile of manure or opening a heavy umbrella. The triangle below is the solid red Bass logo: it is captioned “(See above)”.
The message could not be clearer: where you see the Bass sign there are men engaged in the manly task of sinking premium ale. In the pre-Thatcher era, when brontosauri such as Shirley Williams and Roy Hattersley stalked the land, advertising regulation was an issue.
Advertisers were seen as dark, manipulative creatures who had to be watched. (In view of Saatchi’s success in getting the Conservatives voted into office, Labour’s leaders were right to fear the persuaders but wrong to focus their attention on the threat to consumers. The danger was closer to home.)
In that now forgotten climate, the Bass ad would have caused at the very least a raised eyebrow. To make an explicit link between alcohol and masculinity was in breach of the rules. Masculinity, it was assumed in that romantic age, implied pulling power, and that was definitely against the rules. (The British Code of Advertising Practice, Appendix J. Paragraph 3.5. “Advertisements should neither claim nor suggest that any drink can contribute towards sexual success.”)
My, how the world has moved on. Today, go into any bar and you will spot many a doughty lass draining a pint and wiping the foam from her lip with the back of a manicured hand. How quaint of Bass to think its ancient brew is peculiarly masculine in its appeal.
Quainter still, come to that, to think that men are quintessentially masculine. Like it or not, and the gentlemen brewers at Bass may not like it at all, this is the age of woman. The female of the species has the male on the run. The advent of the working woman has brought about male unemployment and led to male anxiety and low self-esteem. Women have demonstrated that they can be as skilled and successful as men in any department of life or employment. To use the jargon of behavioural scientists, men are being increasingly marginalised.
Their response is either to retreat into fantasies of manhood – hence the popularity of the so-called “laddish” magazines such as Loaded, Maxim, and Men’s Health – or, as in the US, to retreat to the woods and the hills and indulge in a little light “male bonding”.
There is, however, a bolder, third course, and that is for a man to go the whole hog and become a woman. The popularity of this particular escape route became startlingly plain last week when two men announced on consecutive days that they would each be going away for a while but would, in due course, return as women.
First, Dr John Brown, 46, of Oxford, said he would be back as Dr Joanna, then Mr Antony Bradley, 37, of Exeter, temporarily left his post as a schoolmaster, declaring that he would shortly rematerialise as a schoolmistress.
Throwing himself wholeheartedly into the spirit of feminism, he said that, in his new incarnation, he would be called Toni and wished to be addressed as Ms.
Both of these new women have wives and families. Both, too, used to be “real men”. Dr Joanna’s wife described him as a “macho action man”; Ms Bradley was bearded, tattooed, and prematurely bald in a way that suggests she has a hairy chest. Both, in fact, were just the kind of stout-hearted fellows that Bass fondly imagines are at work on its beer.
This is, of course, all deeply confusing for the marketing profession. The safest way out of the dilemma occasioned whenever one’s target market changes its sex in mid-campaign is to be ambiguous from the start. Unisexuality is the way forward.
Calvin Klein showed the way with his unisex fragrance cK one. (Incidentally, to digress for a moment, doesn’t the name Calvin Klein reek of vulgarity? As does Donna Karan. If, in some kind of parlour game, you were trying to invent names that suggested gold pendants, chunky costume jewellery, fake leopard skin sofas and white poodles in diamante collars, you would get maximum points and sweep the board with Calvin and Donna.)
Mr Klein – who at the time of writing is a man – has invented a sequel called “cK be”. If you think that is nauseatingly arch and affected, with its lower case c and capital K, not to mention its “be”, wait for the slogan that will market the “black minimalist bottles”. It is, “be a secret. be a rumour. just be”.
Even in a world that is largely inured to the meretricious, the phony, the precious, the twee, the pretentious, the smarmy, the flesh-creeping, and the downright sick-making, that phrase, the way it is written, spelt and punctuated, is as powerful an emetic-cum-enema as any yet devised by man or woman. Or the kind of man who is on the verge of becoming a woman. Whoever dreamt it up should be drowned in a vat of cK be.